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NHAI: Understaffed and overworked

New Delhi: The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is facing new trouble as it continues to remain understaffed and overworked. Currently, four out of the total of six permanent Member positions in the organisation are vacant. Some of these positions have been vacant since the beginning of 2018, while some others have remained vacant for at least a year.

Most recently, IAS officer Alok (RJ:1993) was appointed as Member (Administration) on December 16, after the post was vacant since January 22, 2018. But officials in the Authority have said that he is yet to join his new posting, leaving the count of vacant positions effectively the same.

NHAI documents reviewed by Millennium Post show that in January 2018, the advertisement for the post of Member (Admin) was sent out. Following the first round of applications, the Ministry's proposed candidates for the position were rejected by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), following which another advertisement for filling the position was put out on May 31 this year - leading to Alok's appointment.

Sources said that proposed candidates for several of the vacant Member positions in the Authority have been lying with the PMO for almost eight months.

One senior official in the know said that positions of Member (Technical), Member (Project) and Member (PPP) have faced the same fate. The position of Member (Technical) has been vacant since April this year when an advertisement for filling up the post was sent out. But the Ministry's proposed candidates for this post were also rejected by the PMO, after which another advertisement for the post was sent out on October 25 this year.

On the same day, another advertisement to fill up the position of Member (Project) was also put out, after having earlier advertised the same vacancy on December 14, 2018, and April 3 this year, the candidate proposals for which were also rejected. The position of Member (PPP) has also remained vacant since December 14 last year.

An overworked NHAI

As a result of the existing conundrum, the existing Members have had to take over additional charges of other departments, in some cases, even ones where they might not have the required expertise, said one official, asking not to be named.

The NHAI website currently lists only two permanent Members in the entire organisation. Permanent Members are second-in-command, responsible for their respective departments and directly report to the NHAI Chairman. Officials in the organisation have said that in the absence of a full staff, Member (Finance) and Member (Projects) have had to take the additional work upon themselves.

For instance, currently, the Member (Finance) is handling the portfolio of Member (Admin) in addition to taking charge of a host of other responsibilities in the organisation, including the Indian Highways Management Company Limited (IHMCL), the government's Green Highways Division and Commercial Operations among other things.

Moreover, Member (Projects) is handling the portfolio of Member (Technical) in addition to his regular responsibilities and also taking care of technical aspects in all states except for five, which are being looked after by Member (Finance).

The apparent staff-crunch at the NHAI comes in the backdrop of a letter written to the PMO with suggestions for the Authority that has cited worries of the NHAI having become "financially unviable" and what it called the Authority's "unplanned and excessive expansion".

Flagging the concerns in a letter to the Highways Secretary, then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Nripendra Misra had said, "Road infrastructure has become financially unviable, private investors and construction companies are withdrawing from greenfield road projects. Model hybrid annuity and EPC (where the government funds 100 per cent of the project cost) mode, with all investment made by government, is unsustainable. Reform needed".

While acknowledging the existence of the letter, Trasport Minister Nitin Gadkari had said that a 1,300-page letter with suggestions on road projects was received in the PMO, following which Misra had then forwarded it to nine secretaries, including the Highways Secretary.

Gadkari had also asserted that the "PM and PMO" have full faith in NHAI and have asked it to increase its projects.

However, it remains to be true that senior positions at the Authority continue to be vacant.

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